Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss

“Together they were going to heighten consciousness by dumbing down an already dangerously dumb constituency”

Mother’s Milk

Edward St. Aubyn

Last week, I read an insightful piece in the August issue of Rolling Stone by Janet Reitman about suspected Boston Marathon bomber Jahar Tsarnaev. Reitman tells a compelling story about Tsarnaev from his adolescents in Boston and his shift to radicalism in the facing of failing American dreams.

Many of you may have seen the controversy that emerged in in July regarding the cover which depicts Tasrnaev as youthful, child-like, and innocent. The general cry from the public was that Rolling Stone committed an insensitive act that insulted the families and the loss of life that occurred in April in Boston. On seeing this controversy on the local news, I immediately went to the store and tried to get a copy both because I wanted to read the piece but also because I wanted to defend Rolling Stone for their freedom to make such a decision with some of my money. I couldn’t find it in the Canandaigua Wegman’s. If they made a decision to pull the issue, they certainly kept it quiet.

This piece isn’t about what’s in the article beyond what I’ve written just above. I would encourage people to go read it to find out. It’s to say thank you to its Reitman, the magazine for opening my world a little more. It’s to say thanks for the children in the community who Reitman interviews and who made the choice to speak up to give us insights about their friend who is now accused of crimes and may very well lose his life for it.

While so much of today’s journalism and media is meant to please its readership. And what so many people seem to do is find the media outlet that best adheres with their world views. I’m certainly guilty of this—I read the New York Times and the New Yorker, but wouldn’t be caught dead with The New Republic. I listen to NPR but know that I’ve died and am consigned to the third circle of the Inferno if Fox News is on the TV. Kudos to Rolling Stone and its cover photograph for making the kind of thought provoking choice that asks its readership to reexamine their perception of an individual that the public has deemed guilty before the trial.

To my teaching friends and colleagues, I would recommend it as a compelling piece of journalism, storytelling, and a piece that would be nicely paired with a reading of Death of a Salesman or Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist.

The loss of life and of limb, heath and well-being is not something to treat with lightly. Our sense of national security, our deepest anxieties about the loss of security, these are things which we must acknowledge. But they are nothing when we lose our humanity, which means that we need to remember and acknowledge that our killers and our villains were once children, brothers and sons, students and friends. There can too often be in our culture a cult of compassion in which we attempt to say because this verges on insulting someone’s loss and tarnishes personal tragedy we cannot touch it. Or, as Edward St. Aubyn says in describing two of his characters, they “corrupted each other with the extravagance of their good intentions.” But this kind of thinking is a cult, because it both narrows and radicalizes what is right. While it’s intentions are humane, it block us from that humanity as well.